Beirut #1: Foraging

We begin at the edge of the sea standing on rocks that millions of years before were fish. The sea breaking over our feet as we gather water, pebbles and glass smoothed by years of tidal movements as the Mediterranean breathes in and out with the moons pulling of oceans across the earth in a daily rhythm. They tell us shit is pouring into the ocean, and bulldozers are pushing trash out to sea. Fishermen are casting from the promenade as old men swim their daily routines. Everyone streams by, walking this edge between sea and mountain -- a tens of million year corridor. Traffic is picking up as the sun appears from behind the hills.

Cretaceous: Everything is flowing down as it is slowly pushed up by Africa meeting the western edge of Asia (Europe). We hop a fence and walk up the Dog River

Our hands dig into the mud, under the grey surface, it is a dark purple rich with decomposition and fermentation. Our world. The smell washes over us. Foul. We continue, plants greet us: watercress, pokeweed, lambs quarter, grape leaves, fragrant limes and oranges, so much that we have never seen, we bite in tentatively learning a new pallet (we will bring much back — perhaps someone knows them?).

Paleolithic: We continue up the valley, here are the sites that our human and non-human ancestors occupied. A very different world. We find millions of years later olive and cactus, flowers of all kinds, thistle, great stands of lambs quarter. It is all familiar and wholly mysterious.

We searched along a ridge and down into a steep ravine for an old Paleolithic site. Foraging for history as much as foraging in histories. Perhaps we were close. Perhaps we were as unknowing as many before us migrating out and back into Africa. Our modern eyes certainly hundreds of plants short in their powers of recognition. We slice off cactus fronds and ripe fruit. Peel off the bark from an olive tree and squeeze their fruit in our fingers. The slope fragrant with wild fennel.

We drive steeply upwards, bright sun and cooling winds. The limestone has weathered into knife-edged undulations. A fox sprints up the hill on over the lip. The one-percent are all around nestled into the hills looking out to Syria, and back down on Beirut. Wild plums, thorns, and blueberries. Thistles and mountain sage.

Everywhere these berries. We are told when ripe they are as sweet as dates by a young Syrian refugee. Now they are far from ripe and as if by magic their juices dry out the mouth. A dry liquid. We pick as many as we can carry.

High up on the mountain cliffs, we had tried the blueberries of a thorn tree. Delicious. With great care, we snip a dozen branches and delicately wrap them in a towel. When we come back Patrick talks at length in Arabic with the taxi driver about how he picked these as a child. Here, everyone, we spoke with foraged.

We wandered the streets of Beirut and in the cracks and overgrown corners old friends greeted us. Purslane and wood sorrel. Across from the hotel, squatters were carefully collaborating with bees. Chickens and children running together. A young fig tree was sprouting beside a fruit seller. And snails were taking their time with a field of wild carrot. There was a dinner to prepare and Banana leaves to cut.

As the sun set, we stood at the side of the road looking into the back of the car, is it enough? Can we make a meal of this?

We decide whatever we have, it is enough. To have a pebble to suck on till you come across a clean stream, some days that is enough.


This is part one of four blogs on our time in Beirut (part two, part three, part four).

We were invited to Beirut by Christine Tohme to participate in the Sharjah Biennial 13  Tamawuj Beirut Off-site Project: Upon a Shifting Plate. A very special thanks to everyone who helped make this project possible: the whole team at Ashkal Alwan,  and Station.  Zakaria Nasser, who worked day and night, from sea to sky, we thank you deeply -- nothing would have happened without your remarkable collaboration and assistance.

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